He who is outside the door
has most of his journey behind him.
Mythically speaking, the Cleveland Cavaliers have spent the last two years wandering in the basketball wilderness after suffering the agony of a soul-shredding separation from LeBron James, one which was executed – in the grotesque glare of national television – by the duplicitous Chosen One himself.
Unceremoniously tossed into a kind of NBA wasteland after years of championship contention, the team was rocked to its very core while being subjected to contemptuous dismissals by ESPN and others of the national media powers-that-be. Left for near-dead by James and the disastrous dealings of the Danny Ferry regime, the Cavs had to scratch and claw their way through a season featuring – among innumerable lowlights – a preening James humiliating his old team upon his return to the Q; a steady stream of injuries and the corresponding invasion of players from the Developmental league; and, to top it all off, a record-setting 26-game losing streak. This trial-by-fire experience was followed by a prolonged work stoppage – which at one time threatened to cancel the entire season – and a second straight year of inglorious bottom dwelling
But now after drifting through the desert since the disgraceful Decision in July 2010, the Cavs are poised to incorporate whatever practical lessons and useful skills gleaned from their travails into the pursuit of challenging for the playoffs – and perhaps doing so starting this fall. Staying with the mythic-journey motif, they have suffered separation, experienced the trials and hardscrabble learning experiences of being lost in the wilds and are now poised to re-enter – wiser and stronger and ready to rock – into the competitive challenges of the NBA playoff hunt.
The primary reason the Cavaliers may be ready to significantly improve next season is Kyrie Irving, the number one pick in last year’s draft who has already proven to be the kind of player a team can build its franchise around. A mercurial point guard with the composure and skills of a young Isiah Thomas, Irving should be the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year and has shown the capacity to dominate games and close them out in the fourth quarter. His fellow rookie, Tristan Thompson, is a super-athletic power forward who plays with incredible energy and, though still raw offensively, has proven to be a strong inside presence who could develop into an All-Star caliber player in the next few years. These two, along with the indefatigable Anderson Varejao, who played in only 25 games this past season because of an injured wrist, comprise the foundation of the team as it heads into this critical offseason – one in which the Cavs appear poised to make a giant leap toward playoff contention.
For starters, in June they will be picking anywhere from first to sixth in a draft class that is rated as being one of the strongest and deepest in years. By all accounts from scouts and general managers around the league, it is reasonable to expect the Cavs to acquire a future All-Star with this choice. They also have the 24th pick in the first round and two high second-round picks, which should enable them to find two or three more players to fill specific roles on next season’s roster. In addition, the team will have around $20 million in salary cap space (and five more first round picks over the next three years) with which to sign free agents and/or orchestrate trades.
And unlike last off-season where – because of the lockout – the Cavs coaches were barred from having any contact at all with the incoming players, Irving, Thompson and the new draftees will play together in July’s summer league and benefit from working with the coaches on the specific aspects of each player’s game. Then, with a full training camp starting in early October, coach Byron Scott and his staff can spend plenty of time and effort blending the individual parts of this young team into a cohesive unit.
A year ago at this time, many were declaring that this franchise was dead in the water, that apathy would cause attendance to revert to pre-LeBron levels (about 12,000 per game) and that owner Dan Gilbert would eventually sell the team or move it somewhere else. Well, as it turned out, the fans gave the Cavaliers a vote of confidence, averaging 16,000 per game while significantly increasing their television viewership and merchandise purchasing. And, according to the sales staff, season-ticket renewals for next year are already at 75 percent of last year’s.
So it appears that rumors of the Cavaliers demise have been greatly exaggerated. Now it’s true that, as far as the post-season is concerned, they are still on the outside looking in. But after spending two seasons in the deep, dark basketball wilderness, there are good reasons to believe that the really tortuous part of their journey is behind them and they are ready to start knocking on the door to the playoffs.
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